Review: Oxnard by Anderson .Paak

The bigged up production doesn't suit .Paak's soulful tendencies, which are further lost in his switch to rap.
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I know this isn’t his second album, but Anderson .Paak’s follow-up to critically acclaimed breakthrough Malibu feels a sophomore slump all the same. That one still feels like a breath of fresh air since no one has a voice like .Paak’s charred soul, and contemporary artists who also merge R&B and hip-hop (they all seem to be trap artists nowadays) aren’t interested in the retro sound - soul, funk - that .Paak loves. And what a polyglot too! A singer/drummer who can also rap whenever he wants to (“The Waters”), plus the person responsible for producing the most stunningly soulful cut on that album (“The Bird”) . Not nearly as much credit is given to .Paak on that last point, probably because he also nabbed beats from other big names, including the infallible Madlib, 9th Wonder and Hi-Tek.

Oxnard is his long awaited follow-up (though there was the collaboration with Knxwledge under NxWorries released in between), and his first to be released on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment label. And there’s a notable change that comes with: gone are the features like Talib Kweli, Rapsody or Black Hippy’s ScHoolboy Q, and to replace them are Dr. Dre (also the executive producer here), Kendrick Lamar (not surprising, given the number of comparisons people have drawn to .Paak based off voice alone), Snoop Dogg,. J. Cole and Pusha T. Comparatively bigger names with presumably bigger pull. And Oxnard was preceded by “Bubblin” (which doesn’t appear here), whose music video highlights that change, with .Paak tossing bills throughout the entire video (and a section that looks like an unironic reference to Drake’s “Started From the Bottom”). And why should I begrudge him for celebrating? He’s been hustling for years and he’s finally made it. (Remember when he lamented “I’ve never been on that website with the ‘Pitchfork’” back in 2014? Oh, how the times have changed.)

But his new personality - which, true, existed in cuts like “Silicon Valley,” but was pretty tempered by comparison - is distant, uninteresting, irritating. The second track is an ode to road head, fine, but it also ends with a blow-job skit. (Oh look! He cares more about finishing than he does about his life, haha!) I don’t know anyone who thinks that sex skits are funny/sexy to actually listen to, and that’s been the case since day 1 (De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising), and I thought we had mostly banished them after the 90s. And on the other side of the album is his own version of Too $hort’s “Freaky Tales” wherein .Paak lists different women he’s conquered (the sort of word he would likely use). It’s a shame, because “Sweet Chick” does have that catchy sample (“Spotlight, that’s just my life and time”) and the rare bit of College Dropout-esque modesty (“She in love with all the trappers from Atlanta / Introduced her to T.I. and that was the last time I had her”), but the song is rendered near un-listenable because of .Paak’s verses.

A skit and a bonus track are minor issues to be sure, but the last point does lead me to another issue: .Paak raps more than ever, and it becomes clear that that’s not where his primary talent lies. To go back to “Headlow” for a moment, he drops “Tears falling down my left cheek / Baby hit the nerve like a Pepsi” in the middle of the blowjob (“You can’t breathe when I’m neck deep”), and they’re all easy rhymes and nothing more (because no one talks like that, and no one thinks like that in the middle of oral sex either). Elsewhere, “Smile / Pretty” drops “How much of this bullshit until we reach the pasture?” early on, and frankly, once you’ve heard one shit pun, you’ve heard them all (thinking about J. Cole here, who thankfully doesn’t drop one).

Plus, some of the songs are flat-out misses, including “Mansa Musa,” which plays like a leftover from the Compton sessions (Dr. Dre actually has many of the same issues as .Paak, namely that he raps when that’s not his primary talent, that his personality isn’t interesting, and oh yeah, he was also a fan of the sex skit too) and “Saviers Road,” which has got that annoying tea kettle noise throughout. The nadir is “6 Summers,” .Paak’s clumsy attempt at politics. Ignoring the choruses that toothlessly namedrop Trump, there’s the brag that “This shit gon’ bang at least six summers” on a song that doesn’t bang! All told, the Fela Kuti namedrop, an artist whose music was a call to arms against the Nigerian government that got Kuti into lots of trouble (putting it mildly), feels empty and unearned.

There are some highlights, and in the second half of the album, they’re mostly because of the features. “Cheers” - produced by Dr. Dre and Q-Tip (a collaboration twenty-five years too late, alas) - has .Paak rhyming about the recently departed Mac Miller (whom .Paak collaborated with on Miller’s “Dang!”), while Q-Tip laments the death of Tribe Called Quest’s partner Phife Dawg. And speaking of rappers referencing old partners, Pusha T starts his verse on “Brother’s Keeper” with a mention to Clipse’s Malice (“Am I my brother's keeper, they still asking 'bout the duo / Applaud his finding salvation, but I'm still rhyming 'bout the you know” - fucking badass), while producers (including .Paak) emphasize the rattlesnake-like qualities of the drums, bringing out Pusha’s natural menace. And better yet is the outro afterwards, with the jazzy cymbals and the spaghetti western-like guitar chords. Whereas I was surprised to see Pusha T guest here (because his cold stare doesn’t seem like a likely fit to .Paak’s warm sound), it does make more sense to hear him working with Snoop Dogg, who sounds as effortless as ever on “Anywhere.”

But the songs that I came here for - the songs with .Paak as the main attraction - are mostly at the start. Opener “The Chase” brings in a flute that makes me think of James Spaulding’s work in the 1960s, and the jittery guitar does have a highway chase feel to it (although Kadhja Bonet’s singing on the intro makes me think of Niki Randa’s contribution on “Getting There” from Flying Lotus’ Until the Quiet Comes; it’s practically the same melody such that I keep expecting the song to go full wonky on us). Elsewhere, “Tints” comes with the album’s most indelible choruses (thanks as much to .Paak as the sparkling and full-sounding instruments underneath him) to the point that I don’t even care that Kendrick Lamar is along for the ride (he reads the laid-back vide of the song and mostly coasts through) and “Who R U?” is this album’s version of “Come Down,” by which I mean a club-ready banger, even if this one is brighter and decidedly less funky.

Ultimately, the bigged up production doesn’t suit .Paak’s soulful tendencies, which are further lost in his switch to rap. There are a few highlights, sure, but not nearly enough for an artist who I would’ve placed bets would be the next Big Thing.

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